The Thrill of the Open Road 24 June 2013

interview: Simon Mills

Hill climbs and times trials. A high-speed collision, sustained periods of extreme foul weather and a series of regrettable headgear incidents. A roaring motorcade that included some of the world's most elegant and valuable racing cars and 1,500km of medieval villages and idyllic Tuscan countryside. Yasmin Le Bon – and co-driver David Gandy – took on the annual Mille Miglia rally in a race-ready Jaguar XK120 and, despite emerging from the experience soaked, exhausted, dehydrated, beaten-up and aching of arms, she's completely hooked.

'It was an intense experience,' says Yasmin. 'For most of the trip, we didn't have time to eat or drink. Destinations were achieved after long and really grueling sessions alternating behind the wheel and in the co-driver's seat – 16 hours of almost non-stop driving on the last day. But...' she says with a huge grin, 'it was also completely thrilling.'

The historical Mille Miglia is the more mannered and less dangerous modern incarnation of the legendary open-road endurance race that took place in Italy between 1927 and 1957. Back then, more than five million Italian fans would line the dusty rural roads to watch the likes of Fangio complete a figure-eight-shaped course of roughly a thousand Roman miles – hence the name – at a life-threatening velocity. In 1954, Stirling Moss, piloting a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR with a co-driver equipped only with an 18ft-long scroll of directions, won the race averaging an almost unthinkable speed of 97.96mph. After a series of fatalities, the race was halted in the late-Fifties, but was reborn as a profoundly safer – though still vigorously competitive – gentlemen-and-lady-driver event.

The race starts in Brescia on Thursday evening and heads for Rome, before looping back to Brescia by Saturday night. Towns visited included Vincenza, Ferrara, San Marino, Roma, Florence, Siena and Maranello. Vehicles are cherry-picked for participation, selected exclusively from models that took part and survived at least one of the perilous old-style Mille Miglia races. These included a Bugatti T37, driven, rather confusingly, by Bruno and Carlo Ferrari, and a Bentley 4½-litre Supercharged with Geoffrey and Richard Ford behind the wheel. The Jaguar team starred Sir Chris Hoy, Daniel Day-Lewis, David Gandy and Yasmin Le Bon, surely the most stylish cockpit couple ever to grace the Mille Miglia?

'Well, when the weather was really bad, I had to give up any notion of fashionability and give in to wearing an old-fashioned leather aviator's hat with goggles,' says Yasmin. 'We had on as much waterproof gear as possible, but, at those speeds, in an old open-topped car, rain lashes your chin like needles entering a pin cushion.' David, in turn, lost a series of rather chic cloth caps. 'By the end of the day, Yasmin's face was so filthy, she looked like a reverse image of a bank robber.' And the scorching sunshine was no compensation – Yasmin had committed to a lucrative modeling job just days after the event's conclusion, so had to cover up almost completely with a black headscarf.

'As soon as we set off, it became obvious that David and I were remarkably similar,' she says. 'Both extremely competitive and very childish. At first, we tried to behave ourselves and be polite. Then we just decided to really go for it.' What Yasmin politely describes as 'a bit of an off' – they were nudged into a ditch during an overtaking maneuver – and the drive through an earthquake-ravaged region didn't stop the team from assuming a respectable 69th finishing position out of 422. The overall winner was young Argentinian Juan Tonconogy in a Bugatti T40. But Yasmin is already planning to do it all again.